Bin Laden Son Is Probably in Pakistan, Intelligence Director Says

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 17, 2009

Osama bin Laden's son Saad, who played a role in al-Qaeda activities from Iran after the Sept. 11 attacks until he was placed under house arrest in 2003, is now probably in Pakistan, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said yesterday.

Saad bin Laden, 26, "has been in some form of custody for years in Iran," a senior administration counterterrorism official said yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. How or why he left Iran is not known by U.S. intelligence agencies, but "the ambiguity of how it happened is symbolic of the relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda," the official added.

Until now, the official said, having al-Qaeda personnel "was a bargaining chip" for Iranian leaders. "The relationship between the two has run hot and cold," he said.

McConnell discussed the younger bin Laden in answer to a question during his final news conference as head of the intelligence community. Earlier in the day, the Treasury Department announced the freezing of assets of four al-Qaeda operatives and noted in a news release that "it was possible" that one of them, the younger bin Laden, "as of September 2008 . . . was no longer in Iranian custody." McConnell added that having Saad bin Laden in Pakistan was better because it was a place to which "we have access."

In late September, an al-Qaeda online forum reported that the younger bin Laden was an "heir apparent" to his father and had "returned to Pakistan from his safe haven in Iran" as part of the consolidation of the terrorist network's leadership. The posting was translated by the Site Intelligence Group.

Reflecting on his time in office, McConnell said he had come into the job in February 2007 with some doubts about whether the establishment of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in December 2004 was the "right decision." After spending almost two years as director, tasked with improving cooperation among the nation's 16 intelligence agencies, he said he decided it was "about right," although more needs to be done.

McConnell described current efforts in the area of cybersecurity as "the soft underbelly of this nation." He said the threat was less that enemies would access sensitive U.S. computer records than that they could destroy information needed to keep the country's economic and military institutions running. He pointed out that the National Security Agency and the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security each have different roles to play in cybersecurity. For example, at the Defense Department, it includes the ability to attack an enemy's systems as well as defend its own.

In addition to military and government sites, protection of cyber systems extends to such civilian entities as banks and utilities. Thus legal authority and budgetary control over cybersecurity efforts are divided among several U.S. departments and agencies. After 18 months of work, McConnell said, there is no comprehensive agreement on a package to take to Congress.

Asked whether the four or more hours he spent each morning to prepare for and participate in the president's daily national security briefing were worth the effort, McConnell said that given how President Bush handled the six-day-a-week, 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. sessions, it was important for the director to be there. Although there were two CIA briefers in attendance, McConnell said, the president "wanted me there." When questions came up, McConnell said, he could guide the intelligence agencies on what was needed. When actions were determined, he said, he could "cause the system to react." And when policy was discussed, McConnell said, he could provide the intelligence related to the options under consideration.

Whether President-elect Barack Obama will have a similar system is unclear. But McConnell believes his successor and longtime colleague, retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair, should be part of the daily briefing for the new president. As for himself, McConnell said Obama has asked him to serve on the president's intelligence advisory board, a group the chief executive can call on to look into special intelligence problems as they arise.

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